Sailing book deserves a place in households

Shetland’s Heritage of Sail by Charlie Simpson. The Shetland Times Ltd, £9.99

This invaluable book, which started life as a series of articles in The Shetland Times, is a résumé of Shetland’s seafaring placed in a wider historical context, metic­ulously researched and full of fascinating details.

Simpson starts with the earliest days of the arrival of seafarers to Shetland – possibly 6,000 years ago, using boats made of animal hide stretched over a wooden frame – and the gradual development of boatbuilding and society.

In his eminently readable ac­count, he assumes 20 centuries of seaborne activity to and from the isles with skin boats slowly being replaced by planked vessels and paddles giving way to oars.

The book charts the progression from Pictish times to the arrival of the first Norse invaders, possibly by rowing boat, to the development of sail – early sails were probably of wool – and its eventual demise, and is packed throughout with refer­ences to local people and, later, to local companies.

Simpson’s book is highly edu­cational, showing how the urge to trade saw Shetland providing dried fish to Norway, which supplied grain and boat timber. Trade under­pinned the Hanseatic League, with German vessels from Hamburg arriving in Shetland in the summer to take cargoes of salted and dried fish. In exchange Shetland would get hooks, lines and nets, beer and spirits, wheat meal, barley and salt.

But the book is not all about boats. Simpson weaves historical facts into his writing – Mary Queen of Scots affected Shetland when she granted her lands in the Northern Isles to her half brother Robert Stewart, father of the notorious Patrick. Later her husband Bothwell fled to Norway via Shetland and his pursuer’s ship, Unicorn, was wrecked off Dales Voe.

Herring became the next big thing in Shetland’s colourful history, with Dutch “busses” fishing in Shetland waters in the summer, starting on St John’s Day 24th June. Lerwick became a den of iniquity, with women selling “sockis” to the crews.

As the Dutch expanded their colonies and influence so the British navy built up to fight them. There were inevitable losses – the cannon outside the Shetland Hotel comes from the vessel De Haan, sunk by the Spanish in 1640.

The infamous era of the press gangs followed with their “re­morseless perserverance” and a large proportion of Shetland men ended up at sea. Some were at the battle of Trafalgar with Nelson and life in the Royal Navy had compensations – men were issued with copious quantities of beer and rum.

Simpson then depicts the era of the open boat fisheries in fourerns and sixerns, the rise of the herring fishery, the advent of the firm of Hay & Ogilvy (later Hay & Co), the build-up and decline of the Greenland whaling and the rise of the cod fishery which led to the development of covered cod sloops. Well-known families such as Thomas M Adie of Voe would own such boats.

The era of the haaf fishing ended around the time of the Delting Disaster in December 1900 – earlier that year the first Scottish steam drifter had fished in Shetland waters, hinting at the end of sail.

The book thus provides a detailed picture of the development of Shetland seafaring, its excitement and disasters and its fundamental importance to the isles. There can hardly be a Shetlander without forebears who worked at sea and as such the book deserves a place in every household.

Rosalind Griffiths


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.